In November 2014, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping stood together and signed an historic pact to attempt to limit the carbon emissions of the world’s two significantly largest contributors of greenhouse gas emissions and, consequently, to anthropological climate change. The US target was to cut net greenhouse gas emissions to ‘26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025’, while China had the goal of aiming to ‘peak CO2 emissions around 2030, with the intention to try to peak early, and to increase the non-fossil fuel share of all energy to around 20 per cent by 2030’.
While the intention was applauded by many, the vagueness of this deal – especially the Chinese commitments – led to disparaging and even ridiculing comments from across the political divide. Prominent Republican Mitch McConnell was quoted as saying, ‘the agreement... requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years’, while an article for satirical website The Onion carried the headline ‘China Vows To Begin Aggressively Falsifying Air Pollution Numbers’.
The pace of economic growth within China over the past few decades, driven by the Chinese government’s insatiable demands for more and more economic activity, led the country to overtake the US as the world’s biggest carbon emitter in 2007. And yet, nine months later, China’s reputation as an out-of-control, fossil fuel-consuming machine is experiencing a dramatic turnaround.
A new report published by an international collaboration, including Harvard University, the University of East Anglia (UEA), the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Tsinghua University, claims that previous estimates of China’s carbon emissions between 2000 and 2013 were inflated by as much as 2.9 gigatonnes. In2013, for example, they estimated the country’s carbon emissions to be 2.49 gigatonnes, a downgrading of 14 per cent from pre-existing calculations.
The report claims this is largely down to China’s use of brown coal, which, while also a creator of toxic air pollution, and therefore detrimental to people’s health, is significantly lower in carbon content than the higher quality coal used in other parts of the world, such as Europe and North America. This variable had not been fully accounted for in previous estimates, such as those calculated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
‘Our results suggest that Chinese CO2 emissions have been substantially over-estimated in recent years,’ says Dabo Guan, Professor in Climate Change Economics at the UEA’s School of International Development. ‘Evaluating progress towards countries’ commitments to reduce CO2 emissions depends upon improving the accuracy of annual emissions estimates and reducing related uncertainties. These findings represent progress towards improving estimates of annual global carbon emissions.
Guan tells Geographical how the Chinese government has invested millions in a new ‘Carbon Project’ aimed at fully understanding the country’s carbon emission sources and carbon sinks. ‘One major part is to survey about 5,000 coal mines’ production for quantity and quality. 600 coal samples were sent to laboratories to test heat values and carbon contents, which are the keys to calculating emissions,’ he explains. ‘China is one of the first countries to conduct a comprehensive survey for its coal qualities, and a global effort is required to help other major coal users, such as India and Indonesia, understand their physical coal consumptions, as well as the quality of their coal types. China has a quite robust system in terms of collecting, reporting and balancing energy data from local to regional and further to provincial and national levels. But other countries, such as India, do not have such mechanisms in place. None of the other countries have made such effort.’
So, while China leads the way in collecting more accurate data regarding the country’s past carbon emissions, dramatic technological changes also mean that the country’s future emissions may be substantially reduced as well. In June, a paper by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at London School of Economics and Political Science, authored by prominent climate scientists Fergus Green and Nicholas Stern, predicted that China’s emissions may well peak prior to 2025, at least five years earlier than President Xi Jinping’s promised deadline of 2030.
The anticipated 12.5 to 14 billion tonnes less CO2 equivalent consequently entering the atmosphere could have a hugely significant impact on the global fight against climate change. The paper states: ‘China’s transformation has profound implications for the global economy, and greatly increases the prospects for keeping global greenhouse gas emissions within relatively safe limits.’
China installed more solar capacity – 12GW – in 2013 than in the entirety of the US. It is this kind of technological progress, as well as an increased awareness of the health problems caused by coal (and in particular brown coal) amongst a growing and more vocal middle class, that has seen China invest dramatically in renewable energy, reducing both their own emissions and the cost of transitioning to renewable energy for the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, Professor Guan from UEA urges caution against any assumptions that China’s thirst for coal consumption will vanish any time soon. ‘China has a target to achieve 20 per cent of primary energy supply powered by renewables by 2030,’ he explains. ‘But the domestic market has not been able to absorb enough for the renewable energy production capacities. For example, China produced 60 per cent of the world’s solar photovoltaic cells in 2014, yet less than five per cent of these panels were installed domestically. China’s future emission will slow down, partly driven by renewables and natural gas, but largely determined by economic growth. Fossil fuel – especially coal – will still play a significant role in China’s economy for the next couple of decades.’